Domenico Cimarosa: The Organ Sonatas from Keyboard Sonatas, Volumes I & II


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    Every narrative requires some simplification. Occasionally, these required simplifications become simplistic, or over-simplifications. And this happens also in the domain of classical music historiography.
    While it is common knowledge that Baroque Italy experienced an extraordinary blossoming of instrumental music – and that it can justly be considered as the cradle of “modern” instrumental music – what happens in the late eighteenth and in the nineteenth century is frequently unclearly defined ad superficially accounted for.
    Doubtlessly, the primary focus in late-eighteenth-century Italian music and in the nineteenth century was on opera, a field in which Italian composers ruled unconstrainedly, Italian singers were unquestionably protagonists, and the Italian audience filled the theatres with enthusiasm, passion and knowledge. And if it is undeniable that a comparable flowering cannot be found in the field of Italian instrumental music, neither is it correct to state that this field was barren.
    Recently, musicological explorations and musical realizations are bringing to focus and to attention this large repertoire, where authentic gems can be found. And if the initial impulse for this rediscovery was determined by nationalistic reasons (the wish to demonstrate the primacy of Italy with respect to other traditions in the field of instrumental music), nowadays, freed from these ideological constraints, the study and performance of this repertoire is conquering performers and audiences alike.
    Within this repertoire, Domenico Cimarosa’s Keyboard Sonatas occupy pride of place, and are decidedly worth reappreciating. Cimarosa’s case is paradigmatic: unanimously considered as one of the finest Italian musicians of the late eighteenth century, he is remembered mainly, if not only, for his operatic output, which includes an undisputed masterpiece such as Il matrimonio segreto.
    Yet, during his lifetime he was known also as a keyboard (and particularly as an organ) virtuoso, and this explains the refinement of the Sonatas he wrote.
    Cimarosa’s life had had a very difficult start. Soon after his birth, his parents moved from Aversa to Naples. There, Cimarosa’s father fell down from a scaffolding and found his death, leaving his child orphaned and his spouse widowed. Domenico became a little beggar, and his life would have been very unfortunate indeed, had he not met the Conventual Friars of Naples. One of them, the organist at S. Severo, guessed the child’s musical talent and gave him his first music lessons. So astonishing was the boy’s learning that he was soon admitted, on a bursary, to one of the famous Neapolitan Conservatories. (Incidentally, this emblematic tale is revealing as concerns the social, cultural, religious and artistic role of those institutions and of church music in general). Cimarosa received teaching in a number of musical subjects (singing, violin, harmony and composition) and completed his education under Niccolò Piccinni and others, particularly as concerns singing.
    Indeed, in his early twenties Cimarosa could easily earn his living playing the violin, harpsichord, organ, composing, and also singing in operatic theatres. In 1772, his first comic opera was staged (Le stravaganze del conte), but to lukewarm applause; the reception of his next opera, La finta parigina, was instead unreservedly enthusiastic. In the following years, his operas were staged mainly in Rome and Naples, and he became a trendsetter in the field of opera by introducing terzets and quartets as the concluding numbers of operatic Acts.
    In the 1780s, Cimarosa’s career took off on an international plane, and his operas were acclaimed in Vienna, in Marseille, in Paris etc.; Cimarosa himself went abroad, as far as to Russia, where his operas took by storm the refined audiences of St Petersburg. His tour took place in 1787, and his itinerary toward Russia touched a number of European major or minor courts, reaping success after success with the rulers of the time (the Grand duke of Tuscany, Duke Ferdinand, Emperor Joseph II in Vienna, Stanislaus II in Warsaw). In Russia, Cimarosa’s son was born on March 26th, 1788, and his godparents were all noblemen or ambassadors. In Russia he wrote or adapted new operas, both serious and comic, but also choruses (conceived for the excellent singers of the Empress’ Chapel) and probably some of the Sonatas for keyboard which constitute the object of the present recording. In 1791, Cimarosa left Russia for Western Europe, and, once more, he made several longish stops during his itinerary. One of them was in Vienna, where he wrote and staged his masterpiece, Il Matrimonio segreto, whose premiere was so acclaimed that, upon request of Emperor Leopold II, it was performed twice in the same evening. Such marathons seemed to mark the triumphal rentrée of Cimarosa: when he eventually arrived in Naples, his city from which he had been missing for six years, he had to play on the harpsichord for seven hours in a row.
    The following years were bittersweet. He lost his wife and had a nervous collapse afterwards; then, he imprudently adhered to both the Republican movement in Naples and to the reactionary restauration, with such implications that he was first imprisoned, for four months, and later advised to leave his city for Venice, where he died in 1801.
    His large output includes approximately 70 operas, mostly comic, along with oratorios, masses and other sacred works; numerous secular vocal works; instrumental music (a concerto for two flutes and orchestra, several symphonies and the Sonatas discussed here).
    As has been said, Cimarosa himself was a distinguished keyboard virtuoso, who mastered all the principal keyboard instruments of the era. His expertise as an organist is testified by the role of organist of the Neapolitan Royal Chapel, a post he maintained for three decades. As concerns the organ, it should be emphasized, though, that both the instruments and the performing technique were substantially different from those used in northern Europe; this applies particularly to pedalling. Therefore, it was commonly accepted that works originally intended for, e.g., the harpsichord could easily be transferred on the organ. On the other hand, works originally conceived for the orchestra (such as operatic symphonies) were also normally played on the organ. Significantly, this practice is witnessed by one of his keyboard sonatas which actually is a transcription after an operatic symphony (Il Fanatico per gli antichi romani).
    The surviving keyboard output of Cimarosa’s works numbers no less than 88 pieces. Of these, though, virtually none was known prior to 1924. One century ago, in fact, pianist, composer and musicologist Felice Boghen, who taught at the Conservatory of Florence, made an exciting discovery, which he related in the following terms: “I [was] lucky enough to discover by chance a rarity of undoubted historical and artistic importance. The book in question is unknown and unpublished and is made up of two groups of pages entitled: Raccolta di varie Sonate / per il fortepiano / composte dal Signor Cimarosa, a composer whose activity in this field was up till now unsuspected. To persuade myself of the validity of my discovery I have searched through the main European libraries, and in none of them have I found the collection in question. The volume is not an autograph; it is a copy, full of mistakes but quite clearly written, bound in leather and containing, in its first book, 50 pieces, in its second, 31”.
    The works found by Boghen (or, rather, a selection of them) were printed first within a rather unreliable publication, which included some major errors and heavy manipulations of the original text. Further editions were published later, and today the reference edition is that realized by Andrea Coen.
    Coen, in the wake of earlier scholars, adopts the view that many, if not most, of these Sonatas were conceived not as autonomous pieces, but rather as movements of a three-movement composition. Under this aspect, they mirror the approach found in Scarlatti’s keyboard Sonatas, which similarly were intended as pairs to be performed unitarily.
    That Cimarosa intended precisely this kind of performance results quite clearly from a number of factors. Pieces which follow each other in the manuscript are written in the same key; their ordering frequently follows a standard pattern (with an opening movement in common time and with a structure reminiscent of a simplified Sonata form, a slow movement and a Finale in 3/8 or 6/8); not infrequently, an “attacca” indication (or something akin to it) is found in the manuscript.
    Performance indications are scanty in the original, and this is surprising if one considers that the fortepiano (i.e. an instrument characterized by its capability to perform dynamic shades) is specifically mentioned as the instrument of destination in the title-page. Still, these works had not been prepared for publication, and the copy upon which the modern editions are based (the Florentine manuscript) is not an autograph.
    The selection recorded here includes some of the Sonatas whose particular traits make them well suited for performance on the organ; this appears even more clearly when specific and unusual effects are intended or can be employed, as is the case with Sonata II, which is recorded twice. In one case, the performance includes the use of the “uccelletti” (“birds”) stop, which was typical and characteristic for the historical organs of the Neapolitan tradition in the eighteenth century.
    Through these works and their performance, we are led to the fascinating discovery of a nearly forgotten repertoire. Going beyond all childish claims as to the primacy of one or another musical tradition, we are left to enjoy the sheer beauty of this music and its expressive potential when played on an instrument as the organ.
    Chiara Bertoglio © 2023


    Giuseppe Rigliaco (b. 1994) is the resident organist of the historical Organ of the Sanctuary of Madonna di Casaluce in the city of Caserta, where he lives. After graduating in piano with honors in the class of the M° Angela Guida, he specialized in organ at the State Conservatory of Music “Nicola Sala” of Benevento under Maestro Mauro Castaldo. During his formation, he has the opportunity to study with a scholarship at a Dutch conservatory in Maastricht with the M° Hans Leenders and M° Marcel Verheggen. He then perfected his skills during masterclasses with numerous international renowned concert performers: M. Imbruno, E. Viccardi, D. Mariano, S. Retaux, R. Canali and S. Sangiovanni. Active on the Italian territory, he is repeatedly protagonist of important events in Southern Italy and he has performed for prestigious music festivals and associations like ‘Alessandro Scarlatti’ of Napoli and the ‘Reate Festival’ of Rieti. He participated at Piano City Napoli presenting the complete three sonatas without opus numbers of Beethoven. His name was in different contests such as: Organ Festival in Campinola di Tramonti, Organ Festival of associations Anna Jervolino and the review Convivio Armonio of Area Arte, in which we can find the most active organists of the Italian territory as protagonist. He won the 1st prize at the Fanny Mendelssohn International Online Competition 2023, the prize ‘honourable mention’ of ‘‘2nd International Music Competition Molopolska 2022 Online’’ and the 1st Prize at the III Musical performance competition of the Cultural Association ‘’Mille Note’’. Finalist of the competition: Concorso Organistico Int. “Fiorella Benetti Brazzale” in 2021. He has been mentioned several times in Italian newspapers “il Mattino”’, ‘”l Corriere di Caserta” and “Roma”. Promoter of various musical activities aimed at enhancing historical instruments and Italian musical literature among which we mention the concert ‘Omaggio a Perosi’ during the 150th anniversary of birth and the project ‘’Concerto d’Organo: la scuola italiana’’ recognized abroad by IIC. In addition, he is now committed in a project of research and recording music of composers of the Neapolitan School. Also, he graduated in aerospace engineering at the University Luigi Vanvitelli in his hometown.


    Domenico Cimarosa (b Aversa, 17 Dec 1749; d Venice, 11 Jan 1801). Italian composer. He was a central figure in opera, particularly comic opera, of the late 18th century.